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Truly transcendent documentary films often seem the result of sheer serendipity, the choice of just the right subject at the perfect time. When they started Gimme Shelter the Maysles brothers thought they were making a conventional backstage concert film. Barbara Kopple decided to investigate Harlan County, U.S.A. just as a strike effort came to a head. 1995's Crumb involved years of filming and waiting. It required extreme patience from its director Terry Zwigoff, who was close friends with his subject yet clearly had to do a lot of convincing to secure his cooperation.
It would be harder to imagine a more contentious subject than Robert Crumb, the artist and cartoonist who more or less created the Underground Comix movement with his highly idiosyncratic and frequently pornographic depictions of the seamy side of the American mentality. In 1968 every kid in the country came in contact with Crumb's cover art for Big Brother and the Holding Company's album Cheap Thrills. A couple of years later in college we discovered Crumb's amazing artwork in Zap comix, which clearly came from a mind completely unrestrained by conventional morality. Although Crumb was the master of many styles his most iconic work looked something like illustrations from old Segar Popeye comic strips, with themes that dipped straight into the suppressed unconscious: racism, scummy sex, societal taboos, paranoia and the seething rage of the unwashed. Zap comix teemed with racist and sexually perverse imagery -- one Crumb character looked like a walking testicle. His work frequently touches on repellent themes. When asked if he's ever been criticized for his frankly shocking images of black characters, Crumb replies that the only ones to complain have been white liberals.
The two hours of Crumb is barely enough time to cover this remarkable man. We see him inking beautiful drawings and dashing off impressive cartoon sketches, an activity that seems to fill his every idle moment. Robert Crumb is neither a pervert nor an opportunist but a genuine artist "doing what he has to do". With only a few missteps like Fritz the Cat he has refused to sell out his art. Rather than create a Crumb comix empire he invited other artists to share space with him in the early underground comic books. Director Zwigoff uses old film and testimonial interviews to support the case of Crumb as a special member of a group of San Francisco alternative artists.
But most of Crumb delves into its subject's personal life, which is nothing less than fascinating. Robert Crumb is associated with the San Francisco Hippie scene but couldn't have been more separate from it. He dressed in old slouch hats and droopy vintage suits. Although he experimented with LSD, he hated psychedelic music. He considers the Rap music an intolerable abomination. Crumb's personal love is old blues music; he listens to his enormous collection of rare 78rpm records as if he were attending church.
Crumb's personal observations (and the autobiographical material in his comics) speak of his childhood as an unwanted outcast, one of three brothers who made their own elaborate comic books but were complete social failures. Rejected by their peers and traumatized by a tyrannical, disapproving father, Crumb's brothers spun off into unhappy cul-de-sacs of mental maladjustment. Robert's drawing ability may have enabled him to externalize his inner conflicts. His cartoons reveal a strong streak of resentment toward girls, who "without fail are attracted to aggressive louts". Crumb investigates the sex pervert theory through input from some qualified feminist spokeswomen, who condemn the artist's work. Others think that Crumb is arrested in an infantile phase of sexuality, a state indicated by his obsession with women with enormous legs, feet and buttocks. The docu covers a photo session that confronts the artist with a sextette of models matching his purported sexual ideal. What sounds like a sleazy idea comes off as amusing. Robert indeed relates to the models as an artist would: he laughs at the absurdity of it all, but does indeed seem inspired by the display.
Crumb turns dark when we meet the rest of the artist's family. Two sisters declined to be interviewed but Robert's brothers Charles and Maxon are discovered living appalling lives apart from society. Older brother Charles brought the comics bug into the family, and as a teen was an accomplished artist. But he succumbed to mental problems and has spent the entire rest of his life indoors, tranquilized. Brother Maxon lives in a tiny room and begs for money on the street. His mental maladjustments led to various sex crimes. Gaunt, with a haunted look in his eye, Maxon puts himself through masochistic routines. He sits in a yoga position on a bed of nails, and passes a cloth through his digestive tract as a "cleansing" ritual.
Although the movie begins with Robert resigned that he'll never get Charles in front of Zwigoff's docu camera, we eventually witness long conversations with both brothers. While Robert listens amiably, often laughing at what's being said, Charles speaks of his isolation with an ironic, despairing wit. Both he and Maxon are intelligent men visited by crippling bouts of depression.
We also meet Robert Crumb's ex-wife, and a former girlfriend. Crumb lives with his present wife, artist Aline in rural California but is seen packing to move to France, which Crumb feels is slightly less evil than the United States. Crumb dotes on his daughter and is seen encouraging his son Jesse, an accomplished artist in his own right. Jesse might show a hint of resentment for his father but we see no signs that the horror of the previous generation will be repeated.
An engrossing and certainly challenging portrait of a genuine artist, Crumb penetrates into its subject's psychological background in a way that most docus cannot. A few of the examples shown of Crumb's artwork are definitely not family material, but viewers not easily offended will find this a superb documentary about a contemporary artist.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Crumb is a fine transfer of this fascinating film. The source was a new inter-positive from the director's original negative, and we're hardly aware that the film was shot in 16mm. The restored audio is also extremely clear -- the film's re-recording mixer is the noted Walter Murch. A new DVD is also being offered, with the same extras.
Criterion producer Susan Arosteguy gives us two commentaries, one by director Terry Zwigoff alone and one with critic Roger Ebert, a Crumb booster from the get-go. Zwigoff met Crumb in a band ages ago and is a fellow record collector. Fans of the film will want to see the 50+ minutes of deleted footage accessible as an extra, with Crumb talking on various topics from his sex life to his views on politics. A stills gallery is also included.
The packaging design incorporates Crumb family artwork. Charles Crumb's obsessive tablet scribbling forms the inside background for the keep case, a chilling detail that makes us think of Jack Torrance's deranged typewriting in The Shining. The motif continues to a separate foldout reprint of Charles's "Famous Artists" talent test, given heavy coverage in the film. The insert booklet features more of the Crumb boys' comic book art, with Robert's pen & ink portrait of his brother on the cover.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Crumb Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.